The song is like smoke. Hard to catch and hold onto. You listen to it once and you feel sad. You listen again for deeper meaning and find some, but on each listen since that meaning goes and a new set of emotions and interpretations take its’ place. You can’t hold to it. Each time I listen I expect each line to mean the same as it did an hour ago, but it doesn’t. Like the archer replacing her arrow after each shot, the song’s meaning changes after each stop and press play.
Produced by Jack Antonoff, ‘The Archer’ has the echoing 80s synths and gathering pulse and crescendo that accompanied 1989’s anxiety-tinged ‘Out of the Woods’ but unlike the latter, the vocals on the former feel and sound paper thin, and unlike ‘Out of the Woods’, there is no resolve, the bow is simply reloaded, and the cycle starts again.
‘The Archer’ is the darker side of ‘Delicate’; the monster that hides under your bed that you are too scared to face. It is deeply questioning – will someone stay once they have seen all of me? A question reputation tried to deal within its’ 56 minutes.
The fear is a universal one. One we all struggle and have struggled with. In an age where everything is curated and photo-shopped and fake, and you don’t know if your friend is friends with you or you as you appear on Instagram, this fear becomes even more palpable.
Can you see right through me?/ They see right through/ They see right through/ I see right through me/ I see right through me
‘The Archer’ is not about inflicting love and romance through a cupid’s bow and arrow; it’s of not loving yourself or liking the person who stares back at you in the mirror. It’s knowing that everyone always leaves eventually and being prepared to fight and to self-sabotage before the person gets to leave. “You gotta leave before you get left” as Swift sings vengefully on reputation. It is also fearfully wondering if anyone will ever stay once they’ve seen you in pieces and broken.
It’s an intensely sad and vulnerable song. It’s like all your worst fears said back to you over a haunting, echoing track.
Dark side, I search for your dark side/ But what if I’m all right, right, right, right here?
And I cut off my nose just to spite my face/ Then I hate my reflection for years and years
Swift has always been known for her vulnerable and vivid storytelling, but previously it has been her attention to the detail of her memories and feelings, her universality of specificity, that has characterised her songs that end up as #track5 on her albums
There are “dive bars on the East side/ dark jeans and your Nikes, look at you” from ‘Delicate’. Emotional abuse in a relationship on ‘Dear John’, “you paint me a blue sky and go back and turn it to rain”. And, then there is the ultimate track 5, ‘All Too Well’, “we’re singing in the car, getting lost upstate/ the Autumn leaves falling down like pieces into place”, details so poignant you could probably make a map using the song and trace your way back through all of Swift’s old memories. Her intention of course. But also, her intention for you to find your memories in hers.
‘The Archer’ subverts this strict attention to detailing her memories; it deals mostly in metaphors. The song writing is still vivid and vulnerable, and most importantly, universal. The last line of first verse is evidence of this.
I’ve got a hundred thrown out speeches I almost said to you
This is something that is kept in all our back pockets. Ready to be pulled out when we get scared. Written in our heads at 2am when we just can’t stop that runaway train inside our brains. If we’re lucky it stays folded up in our back pockets, tinged blue from the colour of our jeans. If we’re not, it ends being one of our biggest regrets and the last things we say to someone.
This line like so much of the song is not what is said but what is not said. The hundred thrown out speeches remain thrown out. We will never know what they were but we can all guess, because we have a few of our own.
The song is a hard listen because it’s a deep introspective look at the way we behave and why we behave that way and stripping it all away when it stops serving you.
It also harks back to her poem, If You’re Anything Like Me –
If you’re anything like me,
You never wanted to lock your door,
Your secret garden gate or your diary drawer
Didn’t want to face the you you don’t know anymore
For fear she was much better before…
But Darling, now you have to.